Maple Leafs-Canadiens Preview

With a combined 35 Stanley Cups, the Montreal Canadiens and
Toronto Maple Leafs are two of the league’s proudest
franchises.

Neither team, however, is coming off a season to be particularly
proud of.

While there appears to be a glimmer of hope the Canadiens will
see some improvements, it doesn’t seem the Maple Leafs have done
enough to get back into the playoff picture.

These Original Six rivals open the condensed 48-game season
Saturday night in Montreal.

The Canadiens finished an Eastern Conference-worst 31-35-16 last
season, ending a four-year run of making the playoffs. The campaign
was marked by injuries and a coaching change, when Jacques Martin
was fired Dec. 17 and replaced by first-time coach Randy
Cunneyworth.

“I definitely felt that it was slipping away from us last year,”
veteran defenseman Josh Gorges said. “We can go over it and over it
and talk about excuses on why things didn’t happen, but I’d rather
talk about the things that we’ll do to be better this year.”

In the end, general manager Pierre Gauthier was also fired after
a disastrous series of player moves, including the trade of playoff
scoring hero Michael Cammalleri to Calgary for Rene Bourque. The
underperforming Bourque finished with five goals and three assists
in 38 games.

Marc Bergevin replaced Gauthier and Michel Therrien is the new
coach. Therrien returns to the team that gave him his first NHL job
a decade ago.

The 24-time Stanley Cup-champion Canadiens should benefit from
the returns of captain Brian Gionta and veteran defenseman Andrei
Markov. Gionta, who had 29 goals in 2010-11, missed 51 games last
season with a torn biceps, and Markov has appeared in just 20 games
over the past two seasons due to knee problems.

The Canadiens were a force on the power play when the
34-year-old Markov was in his prime. They were 28th in the league
with a 14.3 percent success rate without him last season.

Erik Cole, in his first season with the team last year, led the
Canadiens with 35 goals. His line with Max Pacioretty, coming off a
breakout 65-point campaign, and small center David Desharnais has
been kept together as the team’s top unit and could be productive
again.

Carey Price had a bit of a disappointing season, finishing
26-28-11 with a 2.43 goals-against average and four shutouts – four
fewer than he had in 2010-11.

The challenge now is for Bergevin to sign holdout defenseman
P.K. Subban, who will not be in the lineup for the opener. A
slimmed-down Tomas Kaberle has been playing in Subban’s spot with
Gorges, while Markov skates with Alexei Emelin.

“Everyone who went through what we went through last year knows
we cannot repeat what we did,” center Lars Eller said. “There’s
only one way and that’s forward.”

The Maple Leafs are hoping for a similar turnaround, though
their situation seems a bit less promising.

Toronto went 35-37-10 to finish 13th in the East, and days after
the season ended, the team apologized to the fans for a seventh
straight season without a playoff berth – the longest drought in
the NHL.

“We have fallen short of everyone’s expectations, and for that
we are sorry,” Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment said in a
newspaper ad. “We take full responsibility for how this team
performs on the ice and we make no excuses.”

Coach Randy Carlyle, who took over the slumping team with 18
games left last season after then-general manager Brian Burke fired
Ron Wilson, needs to repair a porous defense, first and foremost.
Toronto finished 29th in the league last season in goals against
(264). Only Tampa Bay (281) was worse.

“The bottom line is we’ve got to – as a team – put a better
product on the ice,” captain Dion Phaneuf said, “and play better as
a group.”

James Reimer, whose season was derailed by a head injury last
year, and Ben Scrivens are the goaltending options, while fans
debate the merits of adding Roberto Luongo – and whether Dave Nonis
taking over for Burke as GM may ease trade negotiations with the
Canucks.

Reimer is healthy again, but Scrivens has the advantage of being
in midseason form after playing in the AHL.

Up front, the team will look to familiar faces in Phil Kessel,
Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul to provide offense, and there are
high expectations for James van Riemsdyk, who fell out of favor in
Philadelphia.

Van Riemsdyk, acquired in a June trade, had 11 goals and 24
points in his final season as a Flyer.

“We’re working towards getting off to a good start,” Phaneuf
said.

These teams split six meetings last season, with each winning
twice on the road.